When President Jimmy Carter came into office in 1977, the time was ripe for a new peace initiative and, like his predecessors, the new president was quick to offer one.

He main vehicle for fulfilling Carter's utopian vision of the Middle East was to be a conference in Geneva in which all the parties of the Arab-Israeli dispute would sit down and negotiate an agreement. The Israelis opposed this internationalization of the negotiating process because they believed the Arabs would gang up on them and that none of the Arab leaders would risk looking less tough than the others by offering concessions to Israel.

The key obstacle to convening the new conference became the Syrians. They insisted that all Arab parties negotiate as one in any talks at Geneva. This insured that the most extreme among them, namely the Syrians and Palestinians, would have a chance to veto any decision that was made. Israel would not accept such a condition and, ultimately, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat did not want his hands tied by Assad.


While Carter spun his wheels trying to get the Syrians to Geneva, Sadat grew increasingly impatient. Through a variety of secret contacts, many conducted in Morocco with the assistance of King Hassan, the Israelis conveyed to him the message that they were prepared to trade land for peace. Sadat decided to make a bold gesture and announced to the Egyptian parliament on November 9, 1977, that he was prepared to go to Jerusalem and speak directly to the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, if that would help bring peace.

On November 19, Sadat arrived in Jerusalem and addressed the Knesset.

The Israelis were initially skeptical, but quickly realized this was an opportunity they could not pass up. Begin formally invited Sadat to visit.

On November 19, Sadat arrived in Jerusalem and addressed the Knesset. He shook hands and exchanged gifts with Israeli leaders, visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, and behaved as though he were truly interested in reversing decades of hostility.

It is difficult to understate the impact of Sadat's gesture. By taking a short plane ride across the desert, he had achieved a remarkable psychological breakthrough that could not have been accomplished with regular diplomacy. For the first time, Israelis saw an Arab leader extend his hand in friendship -- and in their capital.

Israel also saw Sadat's visit as an opportunity to split its most formidable enemy from the rest of the Arab world. But Sadat's speech did not give them any comfort on that score. His demands did not reflect any softening of Egypt's position that Israel withdraw from all the territories it captured in 1967, including Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, and to redress the grievances of the Palestinians. He insisted that he would not agree to any separate peace, dashing Israeli hopes.


Begin devised a plan whereby Israel would recognize Egyptian sovereignty over the Sinai in exchange for a peace treaty. He wanted, however, to retain control over Israeli settlements and military installations in the desert near the Israeli border, as well as the town of Sharm El Sheikh, which borders the Red Sea and was vital to the prevention of a repetition of past blockades of the Straits of Tiran.

The most surprising element of Begin's plan was his proposal to allow the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip autonomy.

The most surprising element of Begin's plan was his proposal to allow the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip autonomy. It would be a degree of self-rule falling far short of independence, but it would offer, for the first time, the prospect of a negotiated settlement to the Palestinian problem.

What made even this somewhat limited concession so extraordinary was that it reflected a retreat from the maximalist "Greater Israel" position that had been at the core of the Nationalist camps' ideology since the time of Jabotinsky. The plan also appeared to end the threat of the annexation of the entire West Bank.

Begin met Sadat in Ismailia, Egypt, on Christmas Day in 1977, but the meeting did not produce any agreement. The Egyptian president was holding out for more territory and wanted to give less than full peace in return. Little progress was made over the next several months. Carter met with Sadat, and the two men began to develop a close personal relationship that also brought the countries together.

Carter increasingly appeared to side with the Egyptians, expressing the view that Israel would have to withdraw from the occupied territories with only minor adjustments for security reasons. He rejected Begin's contention that Resolution 242 did not apply to the West Bank, and was convinced that Israel's settlement policy was an obstacle to peace.

Though settlements were sometimes called "illegal" during the Carter years, the United States never formally adopted this position. Legal scholars have noted that a country acting in self-defense may seize and occupy territory when necessary to protect itself. Moreover, the occupying power may require, as a condition for its withdrawal, security measures designed to ensure its citizens are not menaced again from that territory.


Though the Arab oil embargo ended in 1974, its repercussions continued to be felt for the remainder of the decade. The Carter Administration believed it could buy moderation from the Saudis and other Arab oil producers by plying them with weapons. Thus, in 1978, Carter decided to sell advanced fighter planes to the Saudis, provoking an all-out lobbying war in Congress between the administration, defense industry, and Arab lobby on one side, and the Israeli lobby and its supporters on the other.

Carter cleverly decided to offer the Saudis F-15 fighter planes as part of a package that included less sophisticated planes for Egypt and all the F-15s and F-16s the Israelis requested. The president insisted that the package be approved as a whole, thereby making it impossible for Israel to get what it wanted without acquiescing to the sale to the Arabs.

The Israeli lobby succeeded in mobilizing a great deal of opposition to the Saudi sale. However, Congress rarely will override the will of a president on a matter cast in national security terms, as this one was. In the end, Carter agreed to place some limitations on the equipment provided to the Saudis and sold the Israelis additional planes. These compromises were sufficient to win Congressional approval of the sale. The battle had severely strained relations between the president and the Israeli lobby and also was a distraction from the peace process, which became further sidetracked by events in Lebanon.


Talks continued despite growing tensions between the parties, but it became evident to Carter that the only way to achieve a breakthrough was to take the kind of dramatic step Sadat had done with his trip to Jerusalem. Carter decided to invite the Israeli and Egyptian leaders to Camp David for a summit meeting.

On September 5, 1978, the three heads of state and their aides arrived by helicopter. A news blackout was subsequently imposed for the duration of the talks. Initially, the Israelis and Egyptians just negotiated with the Americans, rather than each other. In their first trilateral meeting, Sadat offered a very hard-line peace plan, which Carter had already warned Begin to expect. Still, Begin proceeded in the next meeting to pick the proposal apart. Begin was not much happier with Carter's proposal that Israel freeze new settlements in the territories, and it seemed the summit would quickly break up.

After just the second meeting between the three men on September 7, they never met together again during the summit. Instead, Carter began to hold intensive individual discussions with Begin and Sadat and offered a series of compromises and refinements to the positions of each man.

For the next several days, ideas were batted back and forth between the leaders and their subordinates. Israel sought normalization of relations with Egypt without a complete withdrawal from the Sinai, while the Egyptians wanted a total withdrawal without offering complete normalization. Egypt wanted the rights of the Palestinians to self-determination recognized, and Israel opposed this as a formula for the creation of a Palestinian state run by PLO terrorists.

By the 12th day of the summit, Carter had nudged the parties' positions closer to each other. Sadat finally agreed to exchange ambassadors within nine months of signing a peace treaty, a key symbol of normalization for the Israelis. He also accepted a compromise that effectively separated the requirement that Israel withdraw from the Sinai from any territorial concessions in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, or Golan Heights.


Ariel Sharon told the prime minister that if withdrawing from the Sinai was the only obstacle to an agreement, he should give it up.

Begin meanwhile was willing to give up the Sinai, but would not abandon either the military bases or settlements in the desert. When it became clear this position was a deal breaker, Moshe Dayan threatened to leave if Begin did not agree to this concession. Before deciding, Begin received an unexpected call from Ariel Sharon, one of the leading hawks in his party, who told the prime minister that if withdrawing from the Sinai was the only obstacle to an agreement, he should give it up.

In the meantime, the United States offered to provide financial assistance to help Israel rebuild its air bases in the Negev. Begin then agreed to dismantle the bases and settlements, provided the decision was approved by the Knesset.

Israel also agreed to recognize the rights of the Palestinians. In a move to satisfy Israeli concerns over Palestinian representation and Arab criticism that he was selling them out, Sadat consented to represent the Palestinians in consultation with the Jordanians and Palestinian representatives.

A major source of dissension between the United States and Israel occurred over the question of settlements. Carter believed that Begin had committed to freeze settlements until autonomy talks were completed; however, the Israeli leader maintained he had approved only a 3-month freeze. Though Begin stuck to his interpretation and fulfilled that commitment, Carter remained angry and was convinced for the duration of his presidency he'd been betrayed.

A last snag arose over the issue of Jerusalem. An American draft said the United States considered East Jerusalem to be occupied territory and the Israelis would not accept this, interpreting it to mean they would be forced to withdraw from their capital. Ultimately, the Americans agreed to an exchange of letters stating each party's position. The United States' letter simply restated the positions of its three previous UN ambassadors.


On September 17, Carter, Begin, and Sadat signed two agreements that came to be known as the Camp David Accords:

  • The first laid out Israel's commitment to withdraw from all of the Sinai within three years in exchange for the normalization of relations.

  • The second described a 5-year transition period during which arrangements would be made to give the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip autonomy. By the third year of the transition period, negotiations would begin to determine the final status of the territories.

The agreements represented a monumental shift in Middle East relations. Begin had made the startling concessions of not only the entire Sinai, with its settlements and military bases, but also agreed to withdraw from parts of the West Bank and grant the Palestinians a measure of self-rule. In exchange for these tangible compromises, Israel received nothing more than Egyptian promises of a new peaceful relationship -- but those commitments were the fulfillment of a 30-year dream.


Carter expected the Camp David Accords to be the catalyst to the comprehensive peace he sought. The other Arab leaders made clear he was mistaken when everyone, including the supposed moderates in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, excoriated Sadat for making a separate peace.

To assuage their anger, Carter made a number of statements that supported their positions on key issues, such as the status of Jerusalem and the occupied territories. This did not win any new support from the Arabs and only succeeded in angering the Israelis.

With the prospects of broader negotiations remote, Carter focused on nailing down a final peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. This time, instead of two weeks, it took six months of tortuous discussions. These talks were complicated by a variety of factors:

  • Begin and Carter were constantly at odds over the settlements and other issues.

  • The Arab states continued to condemn the Camp David agreements and warned that Egypt would be suspended from the Arab League, the League headquarters moved from Cairo, and other sanctions imposed if Sadat signed a peace agreement with Israel.

  • Opec States continued to raise oil prices.

  • Iran was becoming increasingly unstable and its pro-American ruler, the Shah, was forced to leave the country, distracting Carter's attention.


As the months dragged on and it looked more and more likely that the already signed agreements might unravel, Carter decided to again intervene directly and personally -- this time by flying to the region to perform his own version of shuttle diplomacy. He arrived in Egypt on March 8 to begin consultations with Sadat. He spent almost six full days flying between Jerusalem and Cairo, trying to coax the two leaders into compromises that would complete the deal. He succeeded, and the treaty was signed on the White House lawn in March 26, 1979.

The final treated called for Israel to withdraw from the western half of the Sinai within nine months and from the entire Sinai within three years. Begin also agreed to withdraw earlier from El Arish and the oilfields Israel had developed in the Sinai, in exchange for Sadat's guarantee that Egypt would allow Israel to purchase Sinai oil. Sadat also said he would exchange ambassadors with Israel and begin the process of normalizing relations.

A key ingredient to the deal was the U.S. commitment to support Israel if Egypt violated the treaty. Carter also received approval from Congress for a total of $5 billion in economic and military assistance for both countries.

Despite the disagreements between Begin and Carter, U.S.? Israel relations emerged from the negotiating process much more closely intertwined, with Israel enjoying greater security cooperation and higher levels of foreign assistance. Politically, however, Carter had caused irrevocable damage to his standing in the pro-Israel community by the degree of pressure he placed on Israel to make concessions and positions and statements that were regarded as too pro-Arab.

In contrast to his relations with Begin, Carter enjoyed a warm friendship with Sadat that helped the United States accomplish its long-sought goal of bringing Egypt into the pro-Western camp.


Israel, which had repeatedly been the target of shipping blockades, military assaults and terrorist attacks staged from the area, made far greater economic and strategic sacrifices than did Egypt in order to reach a peace settlement. While it received additional U.S. aid for withdrawing, Israel gave up much of its strategic depth in the Sinai, returning the area to a neighbor that had repeatedly used it as a launching point for attacks. Israel also relinquished direct control of its shipping lanes to and from Eilat, 1,000 miles of roadways, homes, factories, hotels, health facilities, and agricultural villages.

Because Egypt insisted that Jewish civilians leave the Sinai, 7,000 Israelis were uprooted from their homes and businesses, which they had spent years building in the desert. This was a physically and emotionally wrenching experience, particularly for the residents of Yamit, some of whom had to be forcibly removed from their homes by soldiers.

Israel also lost electronic early-warning stations situated on Sinai mountaintops that provided data on military movement on the western side of the Suez Canal, as well as the areas near the Gulf of Suez and the Gulf of Eilat, which were vital to its defense against an attack from the east. Israel was forced to relocate more than 170 military installations, airfields, and army bases after it withdrew.

By turning over the Sinai to Egypt, Israel may have given up its only chance to become energy-independent.

By turning over the Sinai to Egypt, Israel may have given up its only chance to become energy-independent. The Alma oil field in the southern Sinai, discovered and developed by Israel, was transferred to Egypt in November 1979. When Israel gave up this field, it had become the country's largest single source of energy, supplying half the country's energy needs. Israel, which estimated the value of untapped reserves in the Alma field at $100 billion, had projected that continued development there would make the country self sufficient in energy by 1990.

Begin, like Sadat, was willing to go the extra mile to achieve peace. Although he faced intense opposition from within his Likud Party, Begin froze Israeli settlements in the West Bank to facilitate the progress of negotiations. Despite the Carter Administration's tilt toward Egypt during the talks, Begin remained determined to continue the peace process. In the end, he agreed to return to Egypt the strategically critical Sinai -- 91 percent of the territory won by Israel during the Six-Day War -- in exchange for Sadat's promise of peace.

Excerpted with permission from: "The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Middle East Conflict," by Mitchell Bard, Ph.D. (Alpha Books - Macmillan USA)